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June 18, 2014

Matt Cutts: How Google Ranks Pages with Few Links

Photo credit: Robert Scoble via flickr

For some time now, link building has been the priority for those involved in web design and development. Even marketers spend a considerable amount of time trying to generate external links that direct traffic back to specific sites. When not used for driving actual traffic, links are built to increase search engine traffic: the more external links, the more credibility given to a specific site, at least in the eyes of search engine crawlers.

Links matter. In a recent video, Google’s Matt Cutt’s revealed that links still hold tremendous value in the eyes of SEO rankings and that this would not change anytime in the near future. What does that mean for your site?

Sites with Few Links

Whether you’ve just launched a new website and are excited to spread the word or have a solid site loaded with content that is authoritative, informational and sharable, but, without many links, you may be concerned about your rankings. If you have yet to build many links, or haven’t included backlinks in your marketing strategy, are you in trouble as far as SEO goes? Will Google or any other search engine demote your site in favor of websites with more backlinks?

These questions and concerns, along with many others, have been voiced time and time again by marketers and web developers. Recently, Cutts took time to address these concerns in his latest webmaster help video, How Can Content Be Ranked If There Aren’t Many Links to It.

The answer, Cutts explained, is in going back to the beginning, to what search engines were when they were first created, back to history. “In general, that sort of reverts back to the way search engines were before links. You’re pretty much judging based on the text on the page at that point. So, Google has a lot of stuff to sort of say the first time we see the word on the page count a little more, the next time a little more, but not a ton more, and then after awhile we say ‘we’ve seen this word, maybe this page is about this topic.'”

Narrowed down, that means that when backlinks are not an option, or when a website is still in the beginning phases, it comes back to keywords. A strong keyword strategy can be the difference between a first page spot and being buried somewhere on page 5 of search results.

Tips for Using Keywords Effectively

While backlinking should remain a priority, or at least an initiative to build upon, there are a few best practices to be aware of, as well as things to avoid.

In fact, in the video, Cutts warns against something that’s done far too often by SEO “newbies” or those just getting started: keyword stuffing. When a keyword is used too many times on a given page or site, it can overload the system, appearing to be unnatural and false. The search engines have caught onto the practice and generally penalize it.

“It doesn’t really help you to keep repeating that keyword over and over again. At some point we might view that as keyword stuffing and then the page would actually do less well, not as well as just a moderate number of mentions of a particular piece of text,” he explained.

The bottom line? Keep it natural; use keywords in a way that would flow in average, everyday conversations.

Another area of caution is to be sure your site is hosted on a reputable domain. Because keywords are not the only area of focus for Google – page quality, page context and page ranking are all important factors.

Other Factors Matter As Well

Cutts goes on to discuss other areas of website design, content strategy and marketing that can aid in search rankings.

“Typically, if you go back to a user is typing possibly some really rare phrase and if there’re not other pages on the web that have that particular phase, even if there’s not that many links, then that page can be returned because we think it might be topical to what the user is looking for,” he described in the video.

This means that, even without a strong keyword strategy or backlinks, a reputable website that has regular traffic, shares valuable information, has a lower bounce rate and has repeat visitors may rank higher than a site with a solid backlink strategy. There are options that lay beyond traditional SEO and linking.

Content can be ranked based on context clues – search engine crawlers are getting smarter and smarter. These clues, along with the ones mentioned previously, could include the quality of previous content – if one page or article does well, it will benefit other pages on a given website.

Put simply, a website that shares content that is useful, helpful and informative on a regular basis, on a reputable domain that’s based around a specific area of subject matter, can do just fine without backlinks.

Linking still matters and will continue to matter for the foreseeable future. If two sites rank similarly, the one with greater and higher quality backlinks will most likely have an edge. However, other options exist. Consider your goals when creating your next website, or modifying your current website and work on creating and implementing a strategy that encompasses a little bit of everything. It’s likely to pay off in terms of SEO rankings.


Adrienne Erin writes twice weekly for SiteProNews about online marketing strategies that help businesses like H.O. Penn CAT succeed. Follow @adrienneerin on Twitter to see more of her work or get in touch.